Warm up before you write

In most pursuits of an artistic or physical nature, warming up is standard operating procedure. An opera singer wouldn’t go out on stage without first singing some arias in the dressing room. An olympic gymnast doesn’t step on the balance beam without some serious stretching, as well as a dry-run of her routine on the ground. A sprinter will do some light jogs, stretches, and maybe jumping jacks before the big race. But writers routinely fire up the word processor (or, like in the olden days, take out pen and paper) and attempt to write award-winning prose without any sort of warm up. I don’t think that’s very smart. I believe warming up is as important for writing as it is for singing, gymnastics, or track-and-field.

You do your best writing when you’re in the zone, when the words just flow out of your mind onto the paper. When you’re writing without pause for an hour or more, and then, when you finally take a break and look at what you’ve just done, you see that you’ve finished two pages of excellent, coherent material. How often do you, my reader, experience this state of flow? If this is your normal state of writing, then keep doing what you’re doing, you’re doing fine. My experience, though, from having talked to numerous students, and having taught a writing class for a couple of semesters, is that most people do not describe their regular writing experience in those terms. Much more common descriptions are: “I agonize over every word.” “I stare at a blank page/screen for hours.” “I write a sentence, only to immediately delete it and write it again, over and over.” “Writing is like drawing blood with a blunt needle.” If these latter sentences describe your experience while writing, then try to incorporate some warm-up exercises into your writing routine [1]. I bet you it’s going to help [2].

How do you warm up? It’s easy. Just take an empty sheet of paper and a pen (or open a new document on your computer) and write down any thought that comes to your mind, for about 10-15 minutes. In this exercise, it doesn’t matter so much that you formulate complete sentences, or anything coherent at all. The only thing that matters is that you put words on paper, period. You might think: “But what if I have nothing to say? What if I run out of ideas?” The truth is your mind is never completely empty. However, there may be thoughts you may feel uncomfortable putting on paper, thoughts that are too incoherent, too embarrassing, too silly, to inappropriate. For the purpose of the warm-up, none of this matters. Just write it down anyway. You can always plan to burn the piece of paper afterwards, or to close the document without saving.

And if you truly don’t know what to write, just write that. It is fine to just write “I really have no idea what to write now. I’m supposed to write without pause, but my mind is empty. What can I write when I have nothing to write? I guess I have to write nothing then. Nothing is also words, though. Just words that say nothing.” and so on. The one thing you must not do is stop. The goal of the exercise is to become familiar with the state of flow while writing. The more you experience the flow when writing inconsequential things, the more you’ll be able to recreate the same experience while writing something useful.

Does it matter whether you warm up on a computer or with pen and paper? It depends on your typing and thinking speed. I find that I can type faster than I can think. The result is that when I write on a computer, my hands frequently have to wait for my brain to catch up. This is not good for flow. If I write in longhand on paper, by contrast, my writing is slower than my thinking, and I never have to interrupt the constant flow of writing. I think that’s the better approach. It is much easier to reach a state of flow if you’re engaging in an activity that has absolutely no interruption. One that just hums along for 15-20 minutes. However, if you’re a slower typist, or if you can think faster than I can, then warming up on a computer may work for you. Also, if you’re less than 30 years old, you may never have written much in longhand in the first place, and doing so may feel so awkward that it disrupts the flow. I would say try it out and see what works best for you. There isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all solution.

If you're already warming up before writing, or if you are going to try it out after reading about it here, please share your experience with me in the comments. I’d like to hear about how warming up for writing works for you.

Notes

[1] If you don't have a writing routine, that's a serious issue in itself. A topic for another post.

[2] Warming-up by itself may not be sufficient, if you’re a severe case. There are other important techniques, such as silencing your inner critic. I’ll blog about that at some point in the future.